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review– Fred Chappell on HARVESTING BALLADS

You’d think it couldn’t be done now, the large loose novel of heartland America with hard-luck cowboys, hard-bitten farmers, hardscrabble Indians. A novel that interpolates raw gobs of American history and takes as its main narrative thread a variation on one of the oldest American love stories, the courtship of Miles Standish.

But I know for a fact that it can be done because Philip Kimball has done it magnificently. Harvesting Ballads is a wonderful book, riveting, knowledgeable and moving. It is highly original, too, partly because it is so determinedly traditional. If it seems a novel more likely to have been published in the 1930s than now, that fact tells us something about what is missing from current American fiction.

One part of Kimball’s originality is easy to mark. Here, in a brief picture of woman in the night after a long day’s harvesting, is a sample of his prose style:  “Lying naked a floor away, sheets thrown off perspiring in the moon through the window, in lace curtains in the wind in Chinese elms outside in mulberry trees in hedge-apple windbreaker along the hard red shale road shining blue moonlight screech owl coyote yelp, in 160 acres of uncut wheat stretching for the morning.” 

Lifted from context, that scrap of prose may look artificial or arbitrarily eccentric. But it is the exact and highly readable idiom this book had to be couched in. After three pages a reader is accustomed to it; after five pages he savors it.

Here are dozens of memorable characters: the strong but luckless women, Blanchefleur, Isadora Faire, Isadora Whitehands; the sly snooker hustler, Sapulpa Slim; the wandering troubador named Sorry, whom the novel mostly follows; Sorry’s father, the doomed rodeo poet, Roger Lyons; and many others. One of the most remarkable accomplishments here is the portrait of Sorry’s Uncle Marcus. The dour, taciturn, righteous, workdriven farmer has been drawn many times in American fiction. He is a staple character in, for example, Hamlin Garland. But never has he been treated with such fine understanding and close sympathy as Kimball gives him.

The farmer Marcus, with all his faults, with all his private demons, is seen as the enduring spirit of America. As the novel ends, he stands in danger of being overwhelmed by the forces of agribusiness, by condominiums, by pollution. Yet he still stands, forgiving and forgiven.

Kimball has told how he came to write Harvesting Ballads. “It was my 30th birthday, I’d finished reading a novel I was using in a class I taught at the University of Bonn, West Germany, put it aside mumbling, ‘I can write a book better than that.’ It occurred to me: It’s not what you can do but what you do do that’s important. So I began.”

 And took 13 years to produce a classic American novel …. Well, it’s not yet a classic. Before that dreadful fate overtakes it, it remains [a book] that you and I can gratefully enjoy.

–Fred Chappell